A writer is naturally a logophile, a lover of words. Words are our charcoals, pencils, inks, paints and film cameras. Writing is a mixture of archeology, art, music and synesthesia. The writer yearns to unearth the language to create depictions that can be seen, heard and felt, often in ways that transcend the literal meaning of the words themselves.
That’s why “lost words” are so interesting. I recently came across a used copy of Poplollies & Bellibones: A Celebration of Lost Words by Susan Kelz Sperling in a bookstore. This book resurrects words that are considered obsolete, seldom used in today’s writing or speech, many of them Elizabethan, many of them referring to customs, beliefs or objects that have fallen out of use. They vividly describe a visceral Jabberwocky of the past that breaths new life into the way we use language.
Here are some examples:
A bit of a chitty-face (pinched face), with a bugle-beard (shabby beard), he globbed (swallowed greedily) too much bellytimber (food), and became a porknell (fat person). Arriving too late for the maw-wallop (a badly cooked mess of food), he had to kiss the hare’s foot (have only scraps). At sparrow-fart (daybreak), the scrow (sky) gave him gwenders (cold shivers). He listened to a fliperous (gossiping) flerd (fraud), which led him to become widdershins (misfortunate). His wife firefanged (scorched) the eggs and the smoke made her gleed (squint-eyed). There was garboil (commotion) outside, so she yelled, “Gardyloo!” and poured dirty water into the street. Her husband had a nose of wax (fickle personality) and treated her with pumpkinification (exaggerated praise), though she was a drassock (drab woman), while he indulged a poplolly (mistress) on the side. His mistress was a bellibone (pretty lass), but was often carked (anxious) and fizgig (frivolous).
These “lost words” remind us how extraordinary language can enhance our descriptive palettes.
Of course, pyrotechnics can only go so far in writing. In a recent sketching class, our instructor was discussing the power of the visual and ways of seeing, and shared a descriptive fragment from his sketchbook: “she was wearing the reddest coat possible.” This simple phrase blooms with color.